Tag Archives: The Dream-Quest of Unkown Kadath

Strong Female Protagonists in Science Fiction

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More than ever before, badass female protagonists populate book and screen.  From Lara Croft, to Black Widow, to Katniss Everdeen, they kick butt. In America, the message seems to be that true power is only gained by brute force and coercion, so women can only be powerful if they are young, beautiful, and fight like a man.

Kij Johnson’s poetic The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe shows female power in a refreshingly different way. It’s not every day that you read a sci-fi adventure novel with a sixty-something-year-old female protagonist. Vellitt Boe, is quiet, careful and wise—and her body aches after a long hike. Nevertheless, her goal is achieved, and her strength is expressed in her mentorship of a younger woman. That which has been stereotyped as feminine weakness is revealed in this novella as revolutionary power.

In the mystery genre, there is slim precedence for elderly protagonists whose only weapon in the apprehension of criminals is intelligence. Take Murder She Wrote on TV and Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple series.  However, I can’t think a single elderly female protagonist out for adventure in science fiction. Let me know if you can.

Johnson, who was born in 1950 and is a professor at the University of Kansas, explains in an interview for The Geeks Guide to the Galaxythat this novella was written in response to  H. P. Lovecraft’s The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, which has no women in it at all. She asked herself, “What happens to [the male fictional] world if I put females in it? Does it break it?”

Kij Johnson

Some of my students didn’t want to read the book, fearing an angry feminist critique of Lovecraft and all men, but what we found, instead, was a gentle assertion of female-centered conflict and a main character who uses other forms of power: intelligence, kindness, and patience.

The premise of the novella is that a gifted female college student in Dreamland has thrown away her future to run off with a man to the waking world. Because the education of women is threatened in this male-dominated world, her teacher Vellitt Boe and her Dean determine she must be retrieved before it causes a scandal and the college is shut down. When the Dean proposes to send a man who has the advantage of being both young and—well—a man, Vellitt Boe convinces the Dean that her own knowledge and her power of persuasion are more important to the success of the mission than physical prowess, “We need her to listen, to understand what is at risk…” (27)

The plot thickens when Vellitt discovers that the girl is the grand-daughter of a god. The gods in this Lovecraft’s Dreamland are cruel, petty, and beyond random. If he discovers she is gone, he might raze the entire city in which the college resides.

Though she has to use a machete once or twice, it is primarily the power of patience, wit, clear sight, and compassion that save Vellitt from the murderous shantak birds and ghasts. In a feat reminiscent of the Greek myth of Psyche with the ants helping to complete her insurmountable tasks, Vellitt’s tears when she is trapped are tracked abroad by millipedes, and this draws to her rescue a monster gug whom she saved when it was an infant. Thus, Velitt’s compassion in the past bears fruit in the form of an enormous life-saving gug (134).

If great power comes in subtle forms, so does great danger. In the climax before she breaks into the waking world, Vellitt’s greatest obstacle is not Dreamland’s violence, but doubt, which arrives in the form of a violet-eyed god who tells her that her city, Ulthar, has already been destroyed and her quest failed (142). Again, Vellitt’s power is not brutal strength, but strength of character as well as reason: “You cannot stop me,” she tells the god. “If you could, I would be dead already…and if Ulthar were truly destroyed, you would have brought me visions and shown me relics.  You are just a shadow here. You have no power” (143).

Turning yet another stereotype on its head, Clarie Jurat, the object of Vellitt’s quest, has already fallen out of love with the man she followed to the waking world by the time Vellitt catches up to her. Clarie has discovered on her own that she really didn’t crave the man’s love but rather the expansive world to which he belongs. Women have historically been associated with the unconscious and intuitive – i.e. the Dreamworld, whereas men represent the active, external world, so Clarie’s realization of her own true intent – her desire to leave the interior realm of the unconscious and live abroad in the active realm shows a woman in true possession of her power.

Johnson continues to highlight a subtler form of power in the last turn of the plot. Vellitt convinces Clarie to return not by forceful argument but by providing Clarie with the facts and then just…waiting (160). Awfully passive for a heroine. However, her waiting is really trust of her student’s higher nature. Rather than coercing, she respects the independence and intelligence of her student. This form of power is based on mutual respect and has a revolutionary effect.

When Clairie realizes that the fate of an entire city rests on her decision, she vows to return. Not just another woman sacrificing herself for others, Clarie vows she will change Dreamland and fight the capricious cruelty of the gods: “I have seen a world without gods, and it’s better…I will return and fix our world…I am one of them. I can do it” (162). “Do you doubt me?” she asks Vellitt. “No,” Vellitt says. “No” (163). Transcendently, Clarie laughs and “for a moment it seemed as though the little house was filled with thunder and the earth beneath them shuddered” (163).

Thus, Kij Johnson’s feminist approach doesn’t tear down Lovecraft’s world but augments it by adding women to it. While she points to how women are ignored and disapproved of in a man’s world, her protagonist shows how women are powerful on their own terms.

“Interview: Kij Johnson.” Geeks Guide to the Galaxy with David Barr Kirtley. Lightspeed Magazine. January 2017 (Issue 80). http://www.lightspeedmagazine.com/authors/geeks-guide-to-the-galaxy/

Johnson, Kij. The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe. A Tor.com Book Published by Tom Dhoerty Associates, LLC. 2016.

Unraveling Lovecraft’s The Dream-Quest

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Vellitt Boe

Does an overtly racist writer deserve the energy it takes to write about them?  I’m not sure. However, Kij Johnson’s The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe, based on Lovecraft’s The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, obliged me to read him. Turns out, her interest in Lovecraft is timely, so this month, I’ll focus on Lovecraft, and next month I’ll focus on Nebula and Hugo award winning Kij Johnson.

Lovecraft’s style in The Dream-Quest is annoying and boring. His prose is crammed with value-laden adjectives like terrible, shocking, frightful; his characters are flat and don’t evolve; there’s little dialogue, and there’s a lot of summarized action. Finally, he favors pretentiously and anachronistically twisted syntax.

Yet, when I enter Lovecraft’s land of “dream,” I feel like a person wading through a bog, sliding my foot along a hidden rail of oddly compelling, incomprehensible sense. His more polished stories remind me of Jorge Luis Borges.

 

Lovecraft,_June_1934

Lovecraft 1926

He prays to the gods of Kadath to go there, but they don’t answer him. He determines to go Kadath, “where no man has gone before,” to speak to its gods in person. What ensues are rambling encounters with Ghouls, Night-gaunts, Zoogs, and Gugs with no apparent progression.  The basic plot of Dream-Quest is that Randolph Carter (Lovecraft’s avatar) visits the land of “dream” and sees a “glorious” sunset city that fills him with “the pain of lost things and the maddening need to place [them] again” (Lovecraft 1).

Kentucky U. scholar Timothy Evans asserts Lovecraft’s antiquarian travel writing is key to understanding his fiction. He idealized his white, New England heritage, and he despaired of science, industrialization, and modernism. He loved America’s colonial landscapes, seeing them as the “real America” (forget the indigenous). His greatest horror was immigration and “miscegenation” (Evans 177, 188, and Klinger xl).

Alan Moore corroborates this in The New Annotated H.P. Lovecraft, where he urges us to see Lovecraft as a “barometer… of the fears…of the white, middle-class, heterosexual, Protestant-descended males” who were threatened by “the shifting power relationships…of the modern world” (Moore, xiii).

Sound familiar? Trump would seem to be a dumber, barely literate version of Lovecraft, engaging in absurd antics as he tries to reify a nostalgic vision of “the great white America,” while populating the White House with Ghouls, Zoogs and Thugs. But I digress.

Evans asserts that while Lovecraft’s travel writing explores the light side of his antiquarianism, his fiction explores the dark side, which, in my estimation, might partially redeem his fiction.

 

Maxfield Parrish

Maxfield Parrish

The fact that Randolph encounters ugly and dangerous creatures who kidnap, drug and almost kill him supports Evans’ assertion of the dark side of antiquarianism, as does Randolph’s interview with the “crawling chaos” Nyarlathotep, at the end of the novel.Certainly, Dream-Quest, is rife with bucolic landscapes rendered in misty-eyed wonder. The rejection of obsessive antiquarianism is evident when Randolph Carter encounters King Kuranes, who has dreamed up a replica of old Cornwall (Lovecraft 71). His warning that life in his fulfilled dream is actually unfulfilling suggests that Lovecraft – at least unconsciously—thought the same.

Nyarlathotep informs him (spoiler alert) that the city he seeks has always been his for the taking, for it is made of his childhood memories of New England. The gods of unknown Kadath have been hanging out there, and that’s why they didn’t let him reclaim it (Lovecraft 130). All he has to do is ride on a “monstrous” bird, alight among the gods, and remind them how beautiful their own Kadath is, thereby inducing them to leave his city (Lovecraft 135).

It appears to be a trick when the bird flies him into chaos where he’ll certainly go mad.

The duality of cats and Ghouls, the only friendly creatures in the land of “dream,” who save his life, is yet more evidence of Evans’ assertion.

When I opened the window to let in my own cat, she paused on the threshold, the perfect embodiment of duality. Cats are wild but domestic, cuddly by day, killer by night, and they always pause on the threshold. In short, they make the perfect guides between worlds, thus serving as a touchstone for reality. A fan of cats, Lovecraft depicts them thus in many stories.

Dogs are also dualistic creatures, wild and tame, happy, silly human companions who nevertheless eat carrion and feces. So, too, Ghouls, described as having dog-like faces, “glibber” and “meep” rather adorably, considering they are cannibalistic zombies.

If we view both Randolph and King Kurane as monological, the fact that dualist Ghouls and cats save Randolph suggests Lovecraft sees resolution in the dualism. One more point for Evans.

KadathHere’s where Evan’s interpretation ceases to work, though. Randolph, in the midst of being driven into madness, suddenly remembers he’s dreaming and can simply jump off the bird. Inexplicably–yet somehow consequently–the cosmos dies and is reborn (Lovecraft 140).

Then two conflicting things happen: On the one hand, maybe the dream world becomes real (italics mine):

There was a firmament again…for through the unknown ultimate cycle had lived a thought and a vision of a dreamer’s boyhood, and now there were re-made a waking world and an old cherished city to body to justify these things…

Randolf Carter had indeed descended at last the wide marmoreal flights to his marvelous city, for he was come again to the fair New England world that wrought him. (Lovecraft 140)

On the other hand, he simply wakes up:

Randolph Carter leaped shoutingly awake within his Boston room…and infinities away, past the Gate of Deeper Slumber…the crawling chaos Nyarlathotep…taunted insolently the mild gods of earth whom he had snatched abruptly from their scented revels in the marvelous city. (Lovecraft 141)

I must admit, I like the way Lovecraft’s prose deconstructs itself here, delivering and un-delivering a resolution at the same time by moving the dream into the real world, but characterizing the dream world as simultaneously “infinities away.” Jacques Derrida could have a field day.

Far from being a rejection of antiquarianism, the ending of Dream-Quest suggests that if you pursue your dream in with the right consciousness and a few friends in the unconscious, you can turn fantasy into reality, and it’s worth a brush with death.

The contradictory and inscrutable ending makes it impossible to ascertain just exactly what the story means, which is perhaps, the point of all stories, but most certainly this one.

That’s why, against all intention, I ended up liking it and look forward to rereading Kij Johnson’s Dream-Quest of Vellit Boe with it in mind.

 

Evans, Timothy H. “Tradition and Illusion: Antiquarianism, Tourism, and Horror in H. P. Lovecraft.” Extrapolation. Vol. 45, No. 3. by the University of Texas at Brownsville and Texas Southmost College. 2004.

Johnson, Kij. The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe. Tor.com. 2016.

Klinger, Leslie S. “Forward.” The New Annotated H.P. Lovecraft. Ed. Leslie S. Klinger. Liveright Publishing Corporation. 2014

Lovecraft, H.P. The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. A Del Ray Book. Ballentine. 1990.

Moore, Alan. “Introduction.” The New Annotated H.P. Lovecraft. Ed. Leslie S. Klinger. Liveright Publishing Corporation. 2014

Rottensteiner, Franz. “Lovecraft as Philosopher.” Science Fiction Studies, March 1992, Vol. 19, p117-121.